Reciprocating Professor London's 'logic lessons', by Prof David Benatar

26 June 2007

Professor Leslie London ("Affirmative Action and the invisibility of white privilege", 4 June) suggests that my arguments are illogical. This, however, is because he misunderstands my arguments.

First he attributes to me the mistaken inference that because 'race' is an imperfect marker of disadvantage it is no marker at all. He says that I substitute "recognition that an indicator is imperfect (less than 100% congruence) with the assertion that it is completely unrelated to disadvantage (0% congruence)". Here he implicitly attributes to me the inference that because not all blacks are disadvantaged none are. That is clearly a preposterous inference and one wonders how he thinks I could be making it.

My argument is different. I do not deny that generalizations can be made. However, one has to be very careful how one employs generalizations when one seeks to act justly and intelligently.

First, one needs to be sensitive to contexts where generalizations are less likely to be true. For example, although it is true that most South Africans are Christians, one would be ill advised to apply that generalization in determining the religious affiliation of those attending South African mosques and synagogues. That is because we should expect deviations from the generalization in those contexts. My claim is that something similar is true when it comes to affirmative action in academic appointments, for example. Whereas most South African 'blacks' - indeed, therefore, most South Africans - are educationally disadvantaged, we should not expect this generalization to be true of those competing for academic positions.

Second, one needs to be sensitive to individual variations from the norm. The curious thing about Professor London's logic is that it could have been used by racists opposed to the appointment of 'blacks'. Consider the following scenario. As a result of racial discrimination, the overwhelming majority of 'blacks' are educationally disadvantaged. Racists then note that being 'black' is a very good marker for lacking the qualifications necessary for appointment to an academic position. Thus they recommend a policy that favours the appointment of 'whites'. A philosopher points out the flaws of this line of reasoning, noting that fairness requires that we look at the individual rather than the generalization. He observes that although most 'blacks' may be educationally deprived and thereby unqualified for academic appointments, not all are and thus each individual must be considered on his or her merits. At this point the racist, appropriating Professor London's logic, accuses the philosopher of inferring from the claim that 'race' is an imperfect proxy that it is no proxy at all. The racist concludes that we may therefore use 'race' after all. This is an absurd line of reasoning, but it is formally no different from Professor London's.

If one follows the implications of my arguments, then one will find that at least some of those "choices based on group membership" which Professor London (erroneously) says "nobody claims – are fundamentally unfair", are indeed at least prima facie problematic. Whether they can withstand scrutiny is the topic for another debate.

Professor London's second objection to my logic is that "there is a certain circuitousness about the substance" of my critique of affirmative action. (I presume he means "circularity", rather than "circuitousness" because the latter is not a logical flaw and he has said that he is taking issue with the logic of my argument.) He says that by my logic anybody with a good higher degree "can no longer be seen as disadvantaged". This, he thinks, is at odds with his experience. He reports that having "served on umpteen numbers of selection committees in the University, it is quite clear to" him "that there are numerous black appointees who have overcome substantial disadvantage to achieve excellent academic records".

I am at a loss to see what the circularity (or the circuitousness) of my argument is. However, it is clear that the problem Professor London sees is a result of his misconstruing my argument. He does this by equivocating on the word "disadvantage" - collapsing the distinction between the present and past tenses of this concept. To say, as I do, that somebody with a good doctoral degree is no longer educationally disadvantaged, is not to say that that person never was educationally disadvantaged. Thus the experiences Professor London has had on selection committees - of 'blacks' who have overcome substantial disadvantage - is not a refutation of my claim. (Indeed, he says himself that they have overcome substantial disadvantage.)

But Professor London wants it both ways. He says of decisions to appoint these 'blacks' that "far from entrusting the education of students to 'somebody who has an educational deficit', they have been appointed on the basis of excellent records." To the extent that that is true, they simply did not need to be favoured on the basis of their 'race'. Thus the racial preference policy Professor London is seeking to defend is unnecessary. I have repeatedly said that there are first-rate 'black' academics at UCT who were or would have been appointed without a policy of racial preference. Thus Professor London and I do not disagree about their appointment. Our disagreement is about those who would not be (or would not have been) appointed without a policy of racial preference. If racial preference was necessary for their appointment, then their academic records are insufficient to have secured them the position. Of these candidates Professor London cannot say, without omitting some of the truth, that they were "appointed on the basis of excellent records".

Professor London criticizes what he takes to be the "limited scope of 'equal opportunity affirmative action'", which is the one and only (race-neutral) form of affirmative action that I support. He says that in focusing only on this form of affirmative action, "power is seen to operate [only] at the level of the recruitment process". "Yet", he says, "the power inequalities that give rise to systematic educational and social disadvantage for black people that determine the absence of a 'pipeline' are invisible to such a process. It is here, particularly, that the benefits of whiteness in South Africa continue to perpetuate themselves well beyond apartheid".

This critique is deeply flawed. It assumes the very point I reject - that 'race' is a reliable proxy for (current educational) disadvantage in university appointments. This is not to say that many 'black' applicants are not still disadvantaged by up-stream obstacles. However, that is a matter that must be determined on an individual basis. If upstream factors have been overcome by individual applicants, then they are no longer relevant to determine current disadvantage. If they have not been overcome, then they are relevant to whether a person is the most qualified for a position. This is not to say that past accomplishments are the only relevant consideration. Promise of future achievement may also be considered. However, one has to be extremely cautious in making such judgements. They are even more prone to subjectivity than are judgements about what somebody has already done - because the past is easier to know than is the future. It is thus extremely likely that these judgements will be clouded by policies that require strong racial preference.

In any event, upstream obstacles to equality can be confronted, at various points, in race-blind ways. This does mean that attaining a less skewed demographic of academic university staff will take longer than defenders of racial preference would like. But this is exactly what we should expect if we recognize South Africa's past racial oppression to be the travesty that it was. Centuries of disadvantage cannot be undone as quickly as defenders of racial preference affirmative action think. That is an immensely depressing fact, but it is a fact. If racial preference is employed to create the impression of normalization, the charade will not last long and South Africa and its people will pay the price.

In his penultimate paragraph, Professor London shifts from a 'logic lesson' to one in political philosophy. Here he argues that my views presuppose "individualist notions of justice and rights". He says that this "is a particular value choice" and that there are communitarian alternatives. However, it is not clear why the fact that there is an alternative means that we should choose it. I can as easily point to alternatives to his views. He needs to show that the alternatives are better. To do this, he needs to explore these issues in much more detail. He needs to track their logical implications. He needs to reconcile his alternative with South Africa's robust (but imperfect) commitment to "western", liberal, "individualist notions of justice and rights". He also needs to show why a coherent and defensible communitarianism does indeed imply views different from mine. He does none of this, which would, in any event, best be left to political philosophers.

Professor London should be commended for responding to my arguments rather than launching into an ad hominem attack on me, as so many of his fellow travelers have done. However, when we look at his critique of my argument, we find it is his arguments, not mine, that are logically and otherwise flawed.

back to top

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.